Culture

Wikipedia Editors Uncover Extortion Scam And Extensive Cybercrime Syndicate

CREDIT: Shutterstock/Dylan Petrohilos

Wikipedia, the world’s online trove of collective knowledge, is in the midst of a international extortion scandal, where editors secretly charged businesses and artists a fee to create and “protect” articles.

The Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit organization that sponsors but does not operate Wikipedia, announced Monday that at least 381 accounts have been suspended for “black hat” editing, in which editors charge and accept money for “to promote external interests.”

The scam affects English Wikipedia, which boasts 4.9 million articles, has over 26 million users, and 1,343 administrators, according site statistics. But while the potentially worldwide scam may be illegal, it further tests community values of the world’s most relied-upon site.

“This, for better or worse, is pure greed,” said Andrew Lih, a longtime Wikipedian and journalism professor at American University in Washington, D.C. “These 381 people, they’re all from the same organization or are in cahoots with each other.”

Wikipedia is community-run by a slew of dedicated anonymous or pseudonymous volunteer editors. The investigation was carried about by Wikipedia “functionaries,” or administrators who have special access and “can look into the backroom of data,” Lih said.

Functionaries, he said, hold an exorbitant amount of trust from the community because they can peek into user data including when and where a user logged on, IP addresses, and which pages and sections were edited via a system called CheckUser. Functionaries cannot, however, trawl data and must have a starting point from which to analyze.

Editors suspected some accounts as administrators of being sock-puppet or malicious accounts exhibiting peculiar behavior, such as editing the same group of articles under different usernames, using similar language, making changes against community guidelines, mirroring behavior of other accounts.

After months of analysis, investigating administrators banned 381 accounts, starting with Orangemoody, the official name of the case. There were 210 deleted articles related to small businesses, business owners, actors, photographers, and artists connected to a cluster of IP addresses with suspicious activity.

Orangemoody isn’t the first Wikipedia editing-for-money scandal. It is not forbidden to get paid for editing Wikipedia pages, but the conflict of interest must be disclosed by either the editor or the client. “There remain many, many gray areas,” said Mark Bernstein, a writer and Wikipedia editor, who was involved in the site’s yearlong Gamergate controversy. “The edges of conflicts-of-interest are unmapped. For example, can employees edit articles about their company on their own time? How about their company’s suppliers or customers? Can they edit articles about reporters who cover their industry?”

The issue of non-disclosure was the crux of the 2013 WikiPR scandal, where the Texas public relations firm was accused of creating more than 300 fake accounts to create and manage articles for individuals and businesses. The firm was banned from Wikipedia, a move the company’s CEO Jimmy Wales said was unfair. Wikipedia changed its guidelines after the scandal, requiring paid editors to disclose their ties.

The online encyclopedia was also at the center of more politically charged scandals. In March, New York police officers altered entries related to police brutality victims Eric Garner, Sean Bell, and Amadou Diallo. In the UK, British conservative party leader Grant Shapps was accused of editing his rivals’ Wikipedia pages earlier this year, which was uncovered by the Guardian.

“I had heard for the past few months that a big investigation was being done that would be bigger than WikiPR,” said William Beutler, a veteran Wikipedia editor who runs a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm that links businesses and individuals with Wikipedians to produce more thorough content, but doesn’t directly edit. “WikiPR made themselves hard to track. They did a poor job of serving their clients, telling them they could have something [in an article] they couldn’t have…[Orangemoody] makes WikiPR look totally pedestrian.”

What makes Orangemoody different are its guerrilla recruiting efforts and the group preying on new or gullible Wikipedia users. “This syndicate went out and looked at articles that were being deleted and went and contacted people who were new and wanted an article but were rejected,” Lih said. “WikiPR was not recruiting people to our knowledge; people would approach them.”

Moreover, Orangemoody editors created false threats and, from separate accounts, members would threaten to delete an article and, through another account, tell clients they can ensure the page won’t get deleted for a $30 monthly fee even though most of the pages didn’t meet Wikipedia’s notability standard, which require the article subject to have extensive media coverage — that excludes company websites or press releases, or passing mentions, such as in a listicle.

“There are way more people and companies that launch pages than can typically have one,” Beutler said. “Wikipedia is an important place to be. If you can’t get in there you’ll get frustrated, but if someone says ‘I can get you in there,’ there are going to be people that pursue that.”

“The Orangemoody crew manufactured that crisis to bring to the client,” said Lih, indicating that such behavior fundamentally upsets Wikipedia’s sacred tenet of neutrality. “Guaranteeing an outcome for anything is bad…You don’t want your site to be known as endorsing extortionist behavior.”

It’s unclear how much money was exchanged because the months-long investigation is ongoing and could take weeks to complete, Wikimedia Foundation spokeswoman Samantha Lien wrote in an email to ThinkProgress. However, the foundation is in contact with the victims.

So far, the investigation has only taken place on Wikipedia itself and outside behavior such as financial records have not been investigated. That is partly due to Wikipedia’s strict anonymity rules, which prohibit doxxing or revealing a users identity, something that would be necessary to pursue criminal charges.

As the investigation wraps up, additional user blocks or disciplinary actions could result, Lien said, but formal criminal or antitrust charges are not a certainty. So far, volunteer investigators have not made contact with law enforcement, but the Wikimedia Foundation is exploring all options to protect Wikipedia’s integrity.

“When the community brings cases of undisclosed paid advocacy to our attention, we review all of the options available to support the community investigation, including those available through Wikipedia policies and procedures as well as through legal means,” Lien said.

Criminal charges would be a first for Wikipedia but turning to the Federal Trade Commission to crack down on paid editing is an alternative floated by the community that hasn’t come to pass. In light of the extortion scam, community members are mulling over new policy changes, Beutler said, including putting a limit on the number of accounts per IP address and stricter notability requirements and guidelines for businesses.

But Beutler doubts the Wikimedia Foundation will assist in filing charges because of how much the Wikipedia community values privacy and anonymity.

“Their job is to support the community. The Wikimedia Foundation follows the community, and no one leads the community,” he said. Participating in a law enforcement investigation would be “a double-edged sword because it could expose identifying information,” while on the other hand it would “assist with an organized crime case.”

Whatever the final outcome of the Orangemoody case, the community is going to feel the aftershocks for a time to come.

“It has become clear, in the wake of Gamergate and related conflicts, that something very like extortion is a real and worrisome tactic for Wikipedia pressure groups,” Bernstein said. “What is unsaid here, but I think undoubtedly true, is that the little hotels and restaurants who have been caught by fly-by-night agencies wanting $30 a month to ‘guard’ their Wikipedia pages are the tip of a very large iceberg.”